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Blanchette: Halliday’s college career comes to devastating end

WSU quarterback Connor Halliday finished his college career throwing for 11,304 yards and 90 TDs, and one bowl game. (Tyler Tjomsland)
WSU quarterback Connor Halliday finished his college career throwing for 11,304 yards and 90 TDs, and one bowl game. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – There was nothing dramatic, nothing particularly ominous about the last pass of Connor Halliday’s college football career.

Vince Mayle lined up solo to the left opposite a trips formation, ran a quick curl about eight yards downfield and collected Halliday’s offering. Washington State’s bullish senior receiver pivoted and drove ahead into a wave of USC defenders for a couple extra yards that were meaningless except for the effort required to get them.

When a tardy whistle finally blew the play dead, eyes shifted back to the WSU 10-yard line. And what they took in was very much ominous, and drama of the most despairing kind.

It was devastating.

Devastating in a way that had nothing to do with the last shred of the Cougars’ postseason aspirations being snuffed in what would become a 44-17 loss to the Trojans. Nothing to do with the trivia of more records unreached.

Only to do with a willing and charismatic player enduring a final, crushing disappointment in a college stay defined more by bad teams, bad timing and a regrettable underappreciation than his own off-the-chart statistical achievements – and leadership his teammates professed to admire and civilians disparaged.

As he had delivered that pass, Halliday’s follow-through left him twisting away from USC defensive end Leonard Williams, a monster who’ll be making life miserable for NFL blockers next fall. As his arms engulfed Halliday, Williams’ momentum – and more supplied by WSU center Sam Flor still trying to salvage the block – landed him awkwardly on Halliday’s right leg.

Williams would later tell reporters that he heard a “pop” – and that the sound haunted him afterward.

Halliday rolled over, sat up briefly and let loose a scream that might well have reached the far horseshoe at Martin Stadium – and that would haunt anyone who heard it.

Then he flopped backwards onto the turf and screamed again, balling his hands into trembling fists that he drew up close to his helmet – the pain excruciating, the realization worse. He clutched the shoulder of football trainer Andy Mutnan who came to attend to him. He was consoled by coach Mike Leach, who spent several minutes kneeling beside him “just (to) try to relax him – to put him in the calmest perspective I could.”

And as Halliday was strapped to a board to be carted off the field, USC quarterback Cody Kessler and teammate Hayes Pullard came to his side to pay their respects.

The fans who braved the rawest of Pullman afternoons – generously accounted for at 25,012 – finally took a breath as Halliday was motored off, and stood to applaud. It was all they could do, and it was too little.

By the time Leach was offering another of his vague critiques of another Wazzu loss, he confirmed that Halliday was in surgery, and reports suggested it was to set a broken fibula.

The old next play, next possession, next-man-up mentality wasn’t going to soften the blow.

“Obviously, I felt awful about that,” said Flor. “I had a hand in that. All that’s on me. What else can I say?”

Now, the hard truth is that this Cougar season wasn’t going anywhere even with a whole Halliday – they weren’t going to run the table to bowl eligibility. The faithful wanted to believe they could play their way out of it, but truly the issue was more or less settled by those dismal opening losses to Rutgers and Nevada. That was Wazzu’s margin of error.

Just as true is that the show must go on. The three remaining games are not meaningless to the players in uniform, and especially not to Luke Falk, the one-time walk-on who hustled on in the worst of circumstances and gave a solid accounting of himself – 370 yards, one pick that could have been several and a great feel for eluding USC’s ears-back rush.

His progress will be interesting, but not likely as entertaining as Halliday. The pinball counter on Halliday’s career stops at 11,304 yards and 90 touchdowns – and, yes, 50 interceptions. There are NCAA game records for yards and throws and makes, and a slew of school records he took away from Alex Brink, another Wazzu quarterback who didn’t win enough games to become beloved.

But he did get the Cougs back to a bowl game and Leach assessed his contributions to the program as “huge … most of them, the public doesn’t have an appreciation of.”

Which is sad, because in fact the easiest thing to appreciate was Halliday’s courage – beginning with his first start, when he played more than half the game and nearly beat Utah after suffering a lacerated liver. More beatings followed, particularly once Leach arrived and began ordering up 60 to 70 passes a game.

The awful sight of Saturday’s injury called to mind the last Cougar quarterback whose career ended on such a note – Mike Pattinson, who patiently waited behind Drew Bledsoe for his chance to come in 1993 and had it blown up.

Today, the stakes don’t matter much. The Cougs weren’t going to accomplish anything dramatic. But this was devastating.

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